William Baziotes, Green Form, (Whitney Museum, NY)
John Cage, Sonata V, Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano.
Cage is best known for silence, the infamous 4' 33'', but between February 1946 and March 1948 he composed his sonatas and interludes for prepared piano. "Prepared" is a quiet word for a radical act. Cage called for sticking various objects between the strings of a piano: screws; rubber strips; bits of plastic; furniture bolts; and, most painstakingly, an American Pencil Co. Eraser #346. In all, 45 of the piano's 88 keys are altered in some way.
The idea came to him in 1940, when Cage had been asked at short notice to write music for a dance in a theatre too small to house a percussion ensemble, only a piano. He would later say "what was wrong was not me, but the piano." Preparing the piano enabled Cage to reclaim it as a percussive instrument, which it fundamentally is. (After all, its sounds are made with hammers.) Cage's goal, in part, was to transform the piano into a sort of gamelan, an Indonesian percussion orchestra composed of chimes, gongs and bamboo xylophones.
"Sonata V" with its driving, eerie rhythms sounds particularly timeless (it reminds me of Brian Eno's Another Green World).
The Sonatas and Interludes were first performed by Maro Ajemian in New York's Carnegie Recital Hall, and have been performed only sporadically since, as getting the piano prepared correctly involves many trips to the hardware store.
This performance is by Boris Berman on the Naxos' "American Classics" label, which can be bought here.